Education issues formed a key part of the Republican Party’s midterm strategy, from pledging to undo President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program to promoting policies that ban transgender athletes from high school and college sports.
Now Republicans plan to use their House majority to escalate oversight of the U.S. Department of Education, launching hearings, investigations and lawsuits in a quest to overturn administration policies.
On Nov. 17, the day the House was called for the GOP, Rep. Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who is in line to chair the Education and Labor Committee, tweeted a single word: “Oversight.”
On Tuesday, Foxx elaborated on her agenda.
“Committee Republicans will work to protect the rights of parents to safeguard their child’s education and curb the unchecked power of teachers unions,” Foxx said in a statement. “We will also fight to promote free speech on college campuses, defend the integrity of women’s sports and implement common-sense reforms to the federal student loan program.”
Republicans will have a slender House majority, although infighting and fractures could doom some of the party’s legislative efforts. Moreover, Democrats retained control of the Senate and occupy the White House, so even partisan GOP bills that pass the House will need Democratic support to become law.
Republicans will have the power to steer the debate and shape public opinion, however, even if they lack the votes to drive policy.
That effort began last month, when Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain seeking information about an October 2021 memo from Attorney General Merrick B. Garland regarding threats against school administrators, board of education members, teachers and staff. GOP lawmakers allege the administration targeted parents and used law enforcement to infringe on their rights.
(Republican officials, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have repeatedly accused the administration of labeling parents who attend school board meetings as “domestic terrorists,” an allegation that The Associated Press and other fact-checkers say is unfounded.)
“Instead of working with President Biden to address issues important to the American people, like lower costs, congressional Republicans’ top priority is to go after President Biden with politically-motivated attacks chock full of long-debunked conspiracy theories,” Ian Sams, spokesman for the White House Counsel’s Office, said in a statement. He accused the GOP of “wasting time and resources on political revenge.”
Republicans are also challenging Biden’s loan forgiveness plan, which is currently the target of several lawsuits. Foxx sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda D. Young seeking the preservation of all records related to the administration’s overhaul of the federal student loan program. Biden is proposing canceling up to $10,000 of student loan debt for eligible borrowers and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients.
“It is our duty to ensure tax dollars are spent judiciously — we must rein in federal overreach and teach this administration it cannot continue signing blank checks with taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” Foxx said.
Another potential showdown between House Republicans and the administration is looming over transgender athletes.
Republicans running at all levels of government, from state legislature to Congress, campaigned on the issue. McCarthy pledged that the GOP would “defend fairness by ensuring that only women can compete in women’s sports.” Foxx decried what she called the encroachment of “radical gender ideology” into scholastic athletics.
And Georgia Republican Herschel Walker released a new ad last week in the runoff campaign for Senate that features a female college athlete calling for transgender women and girls to be banned from female sports.
In June, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona released proposed changes to the section of federal code known as Title IX to protect LGBTQ students from discrimination, among other provisions. At the time, the department said it would issue separate rules regarding Title IX’s application to scholastic sports, but those rules have yet to be released.
Groups opposed to legal protections for transgender athletes say they are taking a wait-and-see approach regarding possible congressional action.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to make any predictions about what Congress might do but I will say this: The U.S. Department of Education has engaged in government overreach and that government overreach should be stopped,” said Julie Marie Blake, senior counsel for regulatory litigation at Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal advocacy group that seeks to ban transgender athletes from women’s sports.
Jami Taylor, a political scientist at the University of Toledo who has chronicled the transgender rights movement, said she doesn’t expect Congress to take much action on the issue, despite the Republicans’ heated rhetoric.
“There’s campaign talk and there’s what you can do,” Taylor said. “You might see some discussion in the Republican House, but there’s no way anything would get through the Senate. And even if it did, President Biden would certainly veto it. … It’s a gridlock situation.”
She said she expects most of the efforts to limit transgender rights to play out in the courts or in state legislatures, where dozens of states have passed measures restricting transgender athletes and banning gender-affirming care, among other actions.